Date: 1 March.
Location: Eating strudel for breakfast in our flat on Octóber 6. utca, Budapest, Hungary.
There are the blondes, Twiggy and Paris, whom you already know. There are Chandler and Monica. Then there’s Chandler’s little brother, here dubbed Cooper, who’s flown over from Australia for a few weeks to surprise big brother on hs thirtieth birthday (almost giving big brother a heart attack in the process). There are their three Bedford cousins, the lads we’ve nicknamed ‘Papageno’, ‘Steve’ (after the gopher of the same name) and the bearded ‘J.J.’ (which is short for something politically topical but extremely tasteless so I might leave it off here and you can taunt your imagination with that). There’s ‘Chuckles’, Paris’s stoic paramour. Also, there’s our friendly diehard Liverpool fan, ‘English Muffin’, and the tall, blonde Australian journalist, ‘The Meeting Place’ — he comes in handy in a crowd.
And that’s our crew for a weekend in Budapest. We each take a number from 1 to 12 and, after a few practise hiccups, we can number off without issue.
We even have our hashtag: #PestsInBuda.
Pest-like behaviour begins almost immediately.
We’re here for Chandler’s thirtieth birthday. He’s been given a big gaudy birthday badge and he isn’t shy about tapping it and issuing birthday commands. His first? Everyone must order a full litre of the local beer, Dreher at lunch. This, plus a Weiner schnitzel the size of birthday boy’s face apiece, costs each of us about 3000 Hungarian forent, the equivalent of less than ten quid. It’s a revelation. After being persistent paupers in London, we feel like emporers in Hungary.
From lunch we wander on to Szimpla kurt on the joint recommendation of Budapest connoisseurs in the group. There, we need more beers. The sun falls and focus shifts from beer to Captain Morgan’s spiced rum. The temperature falls and we shift from spiced rum to mulled wine. Real life has faded out in a soft haze and all of London’s sharp edges are gone. Everything is funny. Everyone is charming. Everything is easy. The atmosphere at the bar assists, lending the night a bizarre, surreal carnival atmosphere. Szimpla is so difficult to describe to you. It’s the original of Budapest’s ruin bars, colourful drinking establishments growing up from the charred skeletons of bombed buildings. Inside it is a labryth of small rooms funnelling you down to a series of large, loud chambers then out to the courtyard. Every surface, nook and cranny holds something: carnie lights, old computer monitors flashing kaleidoscope colours, a burned out Chevy that’s been torn open and upholstered in sequinned ottoman pillows, a mermaid mural made of glitter and shells, a photobooth, cheeky graffiti, tall tennis umpire chairs wrapped in lights. There’s something weird behind every door. The air smells of rose shisha. Lonely Planet ranks it as the third best bar in the world.
Time drifts past but, eventually, some food is required and, thankfully, Karavan is right next door. We peruse the food trucks on offer and buy and destroy burgers for dinner, perched on packing crates in the Karavan lot. Paris is even smarter and buys langos, a deep fried pancake of a thing smothered in grated cheese and sour cream. It’s… it’s the best thing I’ve ever seen. We number off and head on once more.
J.J. teaches the group a dirty ditty and we prowl home, singing proudly and taking turns to invent new punchlines for the song, as we give all travelling Australians a bad name. Our song goes something like this:
I used to work in Chicago. (Group repeats.)
At the old department store. (Group repeats.)
I used to work in Chicago. (Group repeats.)
Don’t work there any more. (Group repeats.)
A woman came into the store... (Group repeats.)
A KitKat is what she wanted. (Group repeats.)
Four fingers is what she got! (Group repeats.)
Or, replace the last two lines as you like. Say, ‘A pedicure is what she wanted’ / ‘A facial is what she got!’ ‘Jewellery is what she wanted / A pearl necklace is what she got’. You get the idea. Pretty highbrow. Pretty bloody funny.
We collect one bottle of vodka and, after numbering off yet again, head home to change.
Home for the weekend is an Air BnB on Október 6, right in front of the majestic St Stephen’s cathedral. It is stunning. The flat is at the top of a classically Eastern European building with heavy stone walls, wide sweeping stone staircases and a creaking iron elevator straight out of an older Bond film. The ceilings are high and the vibe is that of a grand old bejewelled countess fallen on harder times and forced to sell her rubies. We have the whole of the five bedroom flat to ourselves for all of about 100 pounds a night. It isn’t fancy (the interior style is distinctly 2008 Ikea) but it’s palatial in size, has beds enough for us all and there’s even a filter coffee machine.
Four of the boys are sharing the biggest room and, though they’ve only been in the country for ten hours, it already smells of farts and boys. Regardless, it’s here we reconvene to vanish the bottle of vodka and make arrangements get across the river to Pest, to the Lukács Baths and the infamous ‘sparty’.
No one knows what on earth to expect. Grimly, Cooper predicts that there’ll be twenty people there, mostly middle aged hirsute Hungarians.
We number off. We go in.
It’s insane. The pretty city baths are a white, square building, with a huge outdoor pool in the central square. Tonight it’s alive with lights and music, red and green lasers piercing the steamy haze that rises off the turquoise pools. From the foyer, where we change cash for waterproof swipe-cards and collect futuristic rubber slap bands that act as locker keys, you can look down upon the chaos. Hundreds of wet bodies ripple through the bubbling water and lounge at its edge. A DJ presides over this land of nocturnal merfolk on his own private island at one side of the pool. The pools are open to the sky and high above in the inky night are giant white cloud balloons, strung up on invisible lines.
We’re assigned cabanas and we split up and strip off into bathers. There’s no time for shyness, this is Eastern Europe.
The next few hours speed by. There are drinks (including wine by the 100ml and unicum and bad caphrinias) and lots of laughs and dunkings.
Later, lying back in the bubbly blue shallows, wrapped up in liquor fuzz and warm water, the journalist and I discuss our weirdest travel moments: Bedouin cave teas, Bolivian jungle reptile encounters, sharing Hot Toddys in the shadows of the Himalyas, African camping gone wrong, being run out of a Polish girl’s Kraków flat at 3am on a snowy night. But this, we agree as we gaze up at the immense inflatable plastic clouds hung above us and the moon beyond that, this is the weirdest yet.
Around 3.30am, numbers 1 through 12 all arrive home and collapse into their assigned beds, falling into dreamless sleeps.